It took a few hours and a lot of pleading outside the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! attraction in Fisherman’s Wharf on a recent Monday morning to fill the top deck of a sightseeing double-decker tour bus. The lower indoor level was predictably left empty.
With tourism returning at a snail’s pace to San Francisco, we wanted to know: What’s it like to operate a quintessential tourist experience two years into the pandemic?
We spent the day with San Francisco Deluxe Sightseeing Tours, a family-owned business that relies on a thriving tourist market, as owner Maneet Sohal and driver Chris Diminco urged visitors onto a bus for a two-hour tour of Ghirardelli Square, the Presidio, Union Square and more.
Sohal described the lull that is Monday mornings: “Saturday and Sunday are lively, then Monday hits.”
With passengers finally on board, Diminco—who doubles as the bus’s maintenance man and commutes in from Concord—guided the crowd around the city. As he ticked off popular destinations, it seemed no one wanted to descend for photographs.
“Anyone want to get off here to see Golden Gate Park?” asked Diminco to a mostly uninterested crowd. “Haight? No? Is my microphone working…?”
Sohal said the tour company, which has been “feeling the hurt” of the pandemic, has been adjusting to a different type of customer.
These days, his riders are mostly Southern and Central Californians who live within driving distance of the city rather than international tourists. The local passengers use the tour as a time to eat lunch or entertain their kids, chatting through the tour’s informational aspect.
“The international people were soaking up all the knowledge and facts and just enjoyed it a lot more,” said Sohal, explaining that they used to have a full bus any day of the week due to international tour groups.
Missing Foreign Faces
Sohal is just one of hundreds of business owners who miss the excited faces of foreign tourists in the city. The 481,000 international visitors that San Francisco saw in 2021 were actually 4% lower than 2020 and down 84% from 2019’s 2.9 million figure, according to the SF Travel Association.
Tour operators also miss the outsized impact foreign tourists have on their coffers: While international visitors only accounted for 11% of overnight tourists to SF last year, they accounted for 44% of tourism expenditures.
No corner of the global travel industry has escaped unscathed from the pandemic, even robust markets like San Francisco. Industry demand is typically broken into three segments—leisure, group and corporate travelers—all of which used to love SF as a destination.
“San Francisco’s diversification had made it a top performer,” said Emmy Hise, the director of analytics for CoStar Group, which monitors hotel bookings through its STR brand. “In the hotel industry, we have seen the leisure market come back. But the other two segments are recovering at a slower pace.”
So even as business and group travelers start to return, San Francisco’s dependence on international tourists is holding back the leisure tourism recovery that some other U.S. cities are experiencing.
The SF Travel Association says that China, India, South Korea and Taiwan were all named as top spenders or top growth markets in terms of global visitors in 2019. But lingering or surging Covid in Asia will keep those tourists locked down for months to come.
Still, a view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge was enough to woo Monday’s crowd. Riders arrived at the bridge with hands up, phones out and got off the bus to take selfies with the orange-hued landmark in the background.
All told, riders paid $45 for a ticket, valid for 24 hours. For those wishing to take advantage of the “hop-on-hop-off” aspect, another bus will pick them up in an hour. This is down from the 25-30 minute intervals Sohal’s fleet ran pre-pandemic.
Sohal likened his tour company to a “cool, hip neighborhood spot” while their competitor, Big Bus, is more like the “McDonald’s” of hop-on-hop-off tour buses.
He said San Francisco Deluxe Sightseeing Tours—and everyone else running tourism and hospitality businesses down by Fisherman’s Wharf—are “big time” banking on the summer to pick back up.
“This summer is what we’re all hoping for.”